We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

Part two: the Killing Floor 

Mark Kessenich is a regular customer at the small slaughterhouse where we brought his mulefoot hogs Cong and Cherry earlier this month. They’re the first swine he’s raised to slaughter, but he’s brought plenty of sheep and a few Highland cattle there before. He’s on friendly terms with with the USDA inspector that normally works on the killing floor, looking for signs of disease in the organs and carcasses of the animals that pass through, and purple-stamping her approval if they’re healthy. Mark makes it a practice to watch the inspection and butchery of his animals, because it gives him a measure of how well his husbandry techniques are working. And as his wife Linda Derrickson puts it, it’s part of their “spiritual journey” with the animals. “We have given them a good life which includes our love and respect,” she says. “They are not just hunks of meat being processed. They are individually valued, and we thank and bless them for sustaining us and our farm with their meat.”

Mark and I entered the killing floor, where four workers were methodically working on three enormous cows hanging from pulleys in various states of completion. They labored under the watch of two new inspectors, one training the other.

Just before we’d arrived they’d dispatched Cong and Cherry with a pneumatic bolt, after which the hogs were hung up to bleed out. Cong was laid out on his back, and a pair of workers opened his hide from his breast to his belly, slowly separating it from his fat, which was relatively scant, as is typical of boars. He was hauled into the air by a pulley, and another chain was attached to the back of his thick, black-haired hide to pull it away from the carcass. The hide, along with his hooves, was then discarded.

I hadn’t realized this slaughterhouse wasn’t equipped with a scalder, which removes the hair from the skin, and would have allowed Mark to leave it on and keep the hooves. According to the inspector, these are rare in small Wisconsin slaughterhouses. In fact, this one wasn’t equipped to process many internal organs, such as the intestines and tripe. We’re going to have to find a different slaughterhouse for our pig, Dee Dee.

The workers then opened Cong with a power saw and removed the liver and heart, proffering them to the inspectors to check for parasites. In a few areas there were milky white spots on Cong’s otherwise dark brown liver. This is indicative of roundworms. For farmers like Kessenich who allow their animals to range freely on grass and don’t use chemical dewormers, roundworms, or Ascaris suum, are a fact of life.

If roundworm eggs are ingested by an animal, they hatch in the intestines and migrate to the liver, where the damage they cause is evidenced by those spots. From there they can enter the bloodstream, and then the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. That’s when a heavily infected pig starts to show respiratory problems, loss of appetite, and vomiting; the parasite can be fatal. None of the mulefoots had any of these symptoms. 

If the spots show up in one or two areas in the liver, they can be cut out, and the liver will pass inspection. But three or more and the inspectors will condemn the organ. That’s what happened this time, though Kessenich felt it should have passed. Cong’s heart passed with flying colors.

Then it was Cherry’s turn. Her carcass was covered with a thick layer of back fat, and compared to Cong, she had almost twice as much leaf lard, the precious deposit of fat located around the kidneys. Like Cong, Cherry’s liver showed signs of infection and was discarded, but her heart passed as well.

Her seven fetuses were also thrown away. “We did not know for certain that Cherry was pregnant,” Linda explained later. “It apparently occurred when the boars broke through fencing to be with the sows in late fall. Most farms use artificial insemination or keep their boars in  jail-like paddocks. We chose, instead, to give our boars a large 20-acre free-range pasture . . . which proved not to be boar-proof.”

The inspector-in-training stamped his approval on the carcasses, though they, along with the other animals killed that day, weren’t scheduled to be cut up until after the weekend. But Mark took home the hearts, the leaf lard, and a piece of hanging tender from Cong. He wanted to to check the meat for boar taint, an unpleasant barnyard aroma that sometimes results when an uncastrated male is kept in the proximity of females.

Cong’s finished carcass weighed 145.5 pounds, and most of it was destined to be sausage. Cherry’s was 175.5 and would be cut up into its primal parts. Mark planned to return to pick everything up in a few days.

Next: the Meat